The Jean Harlow Blogathon – The subversive message of Wife vs. Secretary (1936)


The silly title of Wife vs. Secretary (dir. Clarence Brown, 1936) could easily fool you. And the plot could very well make you want to scratch your eyes out just from reading it: Linda Stanhope (Myrna Loy) believes her husband Van (Clark Gable) is about to have an affair with his secretary, ‘Whitey’ Wilson (Jean Harlow). But this obvious and stereotypical plot is anything but. Wife vs. Secretary is not what you think it’s going to be. Wife vs. Secretary is neither about a wife nor a secretary and their rivarly, not in the traditional sense anyway. We only have to look at the first moment we see Jean Harlow to understand this: dressed in proper secretary clothes, she stands on a chair fixing a portrait of Van that hangs in his office. Professional, capable and business-minded, she interacts with Van as his secretary and friend. It isn’t until Van’s mother Mimi (May Robson) takes a look at her – blonde and beautiful – that she decides that she must be a distraction to Van. She expresses her worries to Linda, who quickly dismisses them: she and Van are very obviously head over heels in love with each other and their marriage is a happy one. But Mimi insists, and so do Linda’s (female) friends… And we all know what that’s going to lead to. And that’s just the thing. There is nothing in Van and Whitey’s relationship that would make one believe that they’re more than friends, other than the fact that she’s very attractive and that he is a man, and in the words of Mimi, ‘men are like that.’. The movie’s very treatment of the Jean Harlow character goes against the stereotype: she’s a smart, ambitious woman who loves her job and her relationship with Dave (James Stewart in one of his first screen roles) ‘suffers’ because of this, as we see in the scene where he asks her to give up her job in order to become a wife and mother, which he thinks is only natural. In this moment, as the close-up on her face shows her inner turmoil, we root for her. Of course we do. And I suspect audiences in 1936 did as well. She is the hero of the picture, rather than the villain, or ‘the other woman’. In fact, all three leads are extremely sympathetic. This isn’t your typical love triangle, certainly not the kind we’re used to seeing in 1930s comedies, with regards to its characters. There are no ‘sides’ in this, at least from the point of view of the audience and, in a way, they’re all victims.

Disguised as a comedy-drama, Wife vs. Secretary is so much more than that. Alice Duer Miller, Norman Krasna and John Lee Mahin crafted a screenplay that deals with society’s double standards, stereotypes and damaging perceptions in a subversive way that is almost unprecedented. Wife vs. Secretary is an eye-opener, then and now.

For more entries on the Jean Harlow Blogathon hosted by Samantha over at Musings of a Classic Film Addict and Virginie from The Wonderful World of Cinema, click here.

23 thoughts on “The Jean Harlow Blogathon – The subversive message of Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

  1. Mike Noonan

    Will have to see this one as it also stars James Stewart. Btw, I saw “ trouble in paradise” and enjoyed it. Will have to check out more Lubitsch films. You’re right about the pairing of Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles. They made a great team.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant article Carol! I have to see this film again. I loved how you discussed Jean’s character and put a favorable light on her. She’s a very lovely and interesting character.
    Thanks so much for your participation to our blogathon! I was wondering if you could include Samantha’s and my blog name in your article, that would be great! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Jean Harlow Blogathon is here! – The Wonderful World of Cinema

  4. John A. Rizzo

    Thanks for your enticing article. I have “Wife vs Secretary” in my TCM Jean Harlow collection, but have never watched it. Maybe the silly title is what put me off. Now I shall have to give it a look!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Jean Harlow Blogathon is Here! – Musings of a Classic Film Addict

  6. Samantha Ellis

    Fabulous article, Carol! This movie plays against so many types: for once the leading couple are married and affectionate, the husband isn’t having an affair with his secretary, and Jean’s portrayal of Whitey is wonderfully ambitious for the time. I adore James Stewart’s earlier work, but he’s so grumpy in this movie! Great job, and thanks so much for contributing to our blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. John A. Rizzo

    Yes, Carol, definitely not the kind of fluff I would have expected from the title. It started out light but took some dark turns. It’s interesting that the trouble starts with a mother questioning her own son’s ability to stay faithful. I thought the scenes of Loy and Stewart at the skating rink were brilliant, and the use of clocks as well. But mostly I was impressed by the character of Whitey, her wisdom and nobility.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love Jean in this movie, and how her character is so different from the expect stereotype. However, I’m a little disappointed because all women (like Van’s mother and Mimi’s friends) think Van will cheat on Mimi and that this was a matter of time. Wife vs Secretary is both unprecedent and a bit flawed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I guess that’s the thing with a lot of old movies. Although I do wonder if it’s meant to be sort of satirical? It’s an interesting POV.
      Kisses! 😀


  9. caracoleta07

    Movies in the 30’s had a tendency to have depth
    I watched this one once, eons ago but I don’t recall much as at the time I didn’t care much for it
    Loved the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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